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Publisher's Weekly ranks ASU professor's new Jane Austen book in top 10

ASU professor Devoney Looser says new Jane Austen research surprised even her.
ASU author presents 5 things to know about Jane Austen from new research.
February 3, 2017

English professor Devoney Looser presents 5 things to know about the acclaimed author, based on new research

Devoney Looser showing off her Jane Austen leggings
Devoney Looser shows off her Jane Austen leggings.

Sometimes artists receive critical acclaim during their lifetimes, but don’t achieve fame until after their death.

This was the case for Jane Austen, and it’s the subject of ASU English professor Devoney Looser’s latest book, “The Making of Jane Austen,” which comes out this summer ahead of the 200th anniversary of the British novelist’s death.

Publisher’s Weekly has named the book a top 10 pick in Essays and Literary Criticism for spring 2017.

“Oftentimes, when we look at a literary figure, we don’t necessarily trace what happened to them from the years of their death to the present,” Looser said. “What my book sets out to show are the ways that popular culture has been influential in our making of her as a posthumous figure, as someone with an afterlife.”

A self-proclaimed “Jane Austen weirdo,” Looser has structured whole parts of her life — teaching, scholarship, leisure — around the early 19th century author. Still, there were things she discovered during the writing process that surprised even her.

Here, she shares five things to know about Austen, her work and her role as an icon.

1. Jane Austen was popular long before we imagined her being popular.

Pride and Prejudice movie poster

Many attribute Austen’s current en vogue status to an explosion in popularity following the widely praised 1995 film adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” starring Colin Firth. Looser sets the record straight, noting that Austen received her first Hollywood treatment in 1940 when Laurence Olivier brought the role of Mr. Darcy to the silver screen opposite Greer Garson, who gave an unfortunate performance of Elizabeth Bennet as a “flibbertigibbet flirt.”

There were several other attempts at translating the classic novel into film, including ones that re-imagined it as a Western, a screwball comedy and a musical — all without success.

Before that, Austen had been invoked for political causes as early as 1908, when her name was emblazoned on banners held by suffragettes marching through the streets of London.

2. There’s some debate as to what garnered Austen fame in the first place: critical acclaim or popular readership.

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott, considered the greatest novelist of the 19th century, gave a positive review of the novel “Emma” during Austen’s lifetime, though the critique was unsigned.

He also acknowledged in his journals that he believed she was more skilled in some areas than himself. After Scott’s 1832 death, his journals were discovered and so was his opinion of Austen. Because of his stature, the public took note.

And there were other well-respected writers who also praised her talent. However, Looser said, “There are some sources from the 1830’s … saying it was readers who discovered Jane Austen, and critics picked up on it after the fact.

“I think there could be an argument made in both directions, but obviously the popular readership is what kept her going and, I think, moved her into each new popular media as it emerged. It wasn’t critics who did that.”

3. The idea of Austen as a feminist icon goes way back.

quote from Pride and Prejudice

Some of the first performances of her work were young women performing Elizabeth BennetThe lead character in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." monologues in their drawing rooms, which Looser said helped spur the beginning of a movement toward women’s rights.

“They spoke Elizabeth Bennet’s words, and it was a way to make them stronger and make them feel like it was OK to say no to traditional structures that wanted them to marry a certain way, or wanted them to behave a certain way,” she said.

In 1909, Austen was included as a character in Cicely Hamilton’s women's suffrage play “A Pageant of Great Women,” at a time when some people were interpreting Austen’s work as “safe and conservative and morally unchallenging.”

“There were certainly people using her work then to say women should go back to the home, that they should be satisfied with their lot in life, which is to be a mother and a daughter,” Looser said. “But at the same, time, all these feminists were saying Jane Austen is a genius writer; Jane Austen gives us characters who show that women are rational creatures. … That’s fascinating, that women learned to refuse traditional edicts about how to live their lives using an early 19th century author.”

4. An illustrator helped shape perceptions of Austen’s novels.

Sense and Sensibility illustration

Ferdinand Pickering was the first to illustrate Austen’s novels in 1833 when they were repackaged as a set.

As an illustrator, Pickering’s style was more gothic, often depicting characters in wide-eyed, sensationalized moments of female intimacy, as in “Sense and Sensibility,” when Marianne falls ill with a fever and is comforted by her sister Elinor.

Looser suspects Pickering’s penchant for depicting those kind of moments had to do with his somewhat tragic and volatile childhood and family relations.  

“His choice to pick out the moments of family drama in Austen are really interesting, and I think shaped readers sense of her books as being more about women and female relationships,” she said.

Pickering also depicted the novels’ characters in 1830s dress, the era during which he created the illustrations, even though they had been written in the 1810s.

“I think it’s one of the reasons,” Looser said, “that people start to mistake Jane Austen as a Victorian novelist.” 

5. She didn’t write in secret.

drawing of Jane Austen

There’s a long-held myth that Jane Austen hid her writing and wrote in secret. It began with the first memoir of Austen’s, written and published by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. In his account, he fictionalized aspects of Austen’s life – the manner in which she wrote being one of them – which he was unable to witness because of his young age at the time of her death.
“He’s saying, ‘I can’t remember my aunt writing, so she must have been hiding it,’” Looser said, “but it was clear that at the time the story was first told that he was writing fiction, that he was fantasizing.”
Unfortunately, that was lost on many and the notion was passed down through history as fact.
“It’s been spun out and repeated over and over as if it’s fact … but if you look at the original source, it does not appear to be the conclusion we should come away with,” Looser said.

“That’s one of the things that I hope my book does; takes us back to some sources we haven’t scrutinized at all, that we’ve assumed were fact, and says, ‘Let’s look at how these were positioned, how these stories got repeated, where these myths came from.’”

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ASU professor says scientists should seek to win back public acclaim.
Gary Moore works to include students from underrepresented groups in research.
February 7, 2017

In Q&A, professor Gary F. Moore discusses his work, which includes study of what plants can teach us about solar energy storage

ASU researcher Gary F. Moore focuses on the future of science — and he hopes that we as a society do, as well.

Moore, an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery, studies what plants can teach us about solar energy storage, which currently is too expensive to use on a mass scale.

He has recently picked up a $660,000 National Science Foundation grant, and he aims to expand his work with students from underrepresented communities by bringing more Native American students in to work in his synthetic chemistry lab.

Moore says research is driven by interest and public policy, and that whatever we collectively decide to fund will drive what we develop.

Here, he shares his views on global energy demands, solar advances and what he teaches the next generation of scientists:

Question: Can you explain your research for those who are unfamiliar with it?

Answer: We’re looking at the chemistry that naturally occurs in our world. For example, these office plants, they’re actually buzzing with electricity. They're harnessing solar energy and storing it so that it can be used when the sun is not available. Solar energy can also be stored in batteries, although batteries posses significantly less power densities compared with fuels. This, in part, is why fuels are essential to modern transport systems.

By mimicking the process of photosynthesis, we can develop new energy sources and industrial processes to produce clean fuels as well as other commodity products.

Some of the research we’ve been doing is capturing conversion technologies with semiconductor materials, but then coupling that with chemical transformations that could turn water into hydrogen, and then that hydrogen would serve as a fuel source when the sun is not available.

Q: Sounds like a much cleaner energy source than coal or other fossil fuels.

A: Yes, that’s the idea.

As you’re generating and using the fuel, you’re not releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. … We’re trying to change what’s happening in the atmosphere.

Q: What is the work you’re doing on solar panels?

A: We’re taking advantage of the semiconductor work in photovoltaics A method for generating electric power by using solar cells to convert energy from the sun into a flow of electrons.where they have the ability to harness sunlight and convert it to electricity. But the sun, like most renewables, is not always available; the sun sets and the wind ceases to blow.

When that’s not available, you can’t tap into that energy infrastructure. For large-scale deployment, that requires a storage solution. How can you store that energy when the sun’s not available? That’s the niche of our applications.

You could say that we’re developing a new way of storing energy that uses existing solar panel technologies with the ability to couple that with fuel production.

Just making electricity is not enough for large-scale deployment for global consumption.

If you want to transition our current fossil fuel infrastructure on a massive global scale, it’s hard to imagine doing that with just electrical generation, just solar panels alone creating electricity.

We rely heavily on fuels for our energy infrastructure. That becomes an important piece in addition to electricity.

The things we’re working on in our labs and in other labs across the globe are addressing that.

Q: Solar power has been in the social consciousness since President Jimmy Carter put panels up on the White House. What’s preventing solar energy from being consumed on a large scale?

A: There’s three main concerns: efficiencies, which gets a lot of attention. The other two are the cost of materials and the longevity of the materials — how long can they last?

In principle, the things we’re working on in the lab you can do with existing technologies. It’s possible to buy a photovoltaic material and other items, but the barrier for those going to market in part is cost.

However, materials used in those technologies include elements that are deep in the periodic table and thus rare, such as iridium and platinum. When things are rare they’re not able to be deployed on large scales, and their cost can be impacted by that as well.

Plants, like most biological organisms, make use of elements that are high in the periodic table and abundant. We are trying to find out through biomimicry how nature has carried out this chemistry and can we learn some aspects of that to carry into technologies that would be beneficial.

But that’s just the science part. It’s also going to take policy and economics. So all three of those things — science, policy and economics — are required to help make a big breakthrough.

Q: How far away do you think we are from that breakthrough?

A: Depends on what we decide to do with science policy. What aspects we tend to fund as a society and nation, planet, will accelerate those processes. But we live in a world where we don’t know what’s going to happen on a day-to-day basis.

What’s really difficult is that some of this knowledge goes away, and there’s retraining of scientists after that knowledge has been lost for a 20- to 30-year period.

The 1970s was a time when there was interest in renewable energy, and these ideas have been around for quite some time, but they fall out of the cycle because of funding and this knowledge gets lost.

For example, there was a time when we had a significant amount of electrochemists, and we’ve had to go back as a community and relearn a lot of that knowledge that was lost between these funding cycles in this area of solar research.

As soon as you start to make some traction, sometimes the political direction can sway the direction of these emerging technologies.

Q: How much of our energy do we get from solar now?

A: It’s a small fraction of our current energy structure. It’s mostly driven off of coal, oil and gas. But there’s so much more potential.

As a planet, we will double our energy consumption by 2050. Even if we stay at our consumption level of coal, oil or gas, how are we going to match that other doubling in energy demand?

If we continue to do that, the climate change scenarios look pretty grim.

That’s what we need to be thinking about. How are we going to fill in this new need as we move forward in time, and how will we do it cleanly?

Q: You're teaching the next generation of solar researchers. What is the main thing you want to convey?

A: Graduate students and PhD students have to contribute an original piece of knowledge to science as part of their research projects. To achieve this, a researcher has to have a good handle on how to build things, a knowledge of how to obtain the required data and experience in interpreting that data in a way that’s scientifically rigorous and not based on opinions and feelings, or what they want the result to be.

That can be challenging.

Then I also interact with undergraduate students, who are just being exposed to concepts in organic chemistry or chemistry, in general.

That’s a really fun time to be able to get young people excited about science. And even if they’re not going to go on to become scientists, having an appreciation of science is an important aspect we should all have as voters and participants in society.

Having a well-informed public will help drive major decisions about science policy because lately, people are questioning science.

There was a time when science and scientists had more public acclaim. When we put a human on the moon, scientists were heroes.

Unfortunately, we’re moving into an era where that’s not the case anymore.

Science is now questioned. It doesn’t have the high standard in public view that it used to, and I think that’s something that we should win back as scientists.


Top photo: Graduate student Anna M. Beiler (left), and Gary F. Moore (right), an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, who works with students to develop efficient, economical and stable solar energy technologies in the labs in ISTB V. He recently received a five-year, $660,000 NSF grant to explore biology-inspired technologies for solar fuel production. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now